Must the door stay closed?

Nobody should be surprised that the most vehement criticism of Britain's attitude to the passengers of the hijacked Afghan airliner came from the Wall Street Journal, which deemed that the whole affair had put the country in an ugly light. The WSJ, one of the high priests of capitalism in its rawest form, was simply being consistent. Those who support the free movement of goods and capital - as all three main parties in Britain broadly do - ought also to support the free movement of labour. If you worship the market as the perfect economic mechanism, and deplore any interference with it, why should you single out migrants for regulation? In this logic, refugee status becomes irrelevant; indeed, "economic migrants" should be as welcome as the foreign "inward investment" that ministers so assiduously seek. All that these migrants are doing, after all, is getting on their bikes (or aeroplanes) in search of work. Their arrival will be no more damaging to the social fabric, or to the unemployment figures, than the routine factory closures and downsizing that are readily accepted as other consequences of the global market.

The popular notion that these migrants are likely to be lazy people, bent on sponging off the welfare state or lounging in front of EastEnders in an airport hotel, is preposterous. Only the more enterprising and energetic are inclined to uproot themselves from home and family, to go to the considerable lengths now required to outwit immigration authorities and possibly even to risk their lives in order to settle in a distant, strange and probably hostile country.

But if consistency is demanded of one side in the argument, it must also be demanded of the other. Those who support a minimum wage, a strong welfare state, limitations on working hours and other attempts to modify the rapacity of the market must acknowledge that migration should also be regulated. Indeed, those who give the wretched of the earth most help in escaping their plight, through evasion of immigration regulations, are the hardest-faced of capitalists, intent on taking advantage of cheap labour. In the WSJ's ideal world, human labour, like any other commodity, would simply be allowed to find its own level, regulating itself without the distorting effects of giro cheques or free hospital treatment or minimum wages, so that, to many, Britain would seem no more attractive (perhaps less so) than Afghanistan. It is all very well for sections of the liberal left to compare Britain's present treatment of refugees with earlier stages of history. But there are two important differences: first, transport from all parts of the world was much less available than today; second, support for the unemployed, the disabled or the ill was very much weaker.

This is not necessarily to support Jack Straw's particular measures on refugees, merely to observe that centre-left governments face a genuine dilemma. It is hard now to remember that asylum-seeking once bore a positive connotation; the arrival of defectors from the Soviet Union, or other countries in the Communist bloc, were occasions for celebration, often by the same people who now deplore the arrival of Afghans or Iraqis at Stansted. Then, asylum-seekers represented a political victory for the west, a sign that our system was superior. Now, the west thinks it has no need to prove its superiority; the matter is one of straightforward economics. That is why, given the global availability of easy transport, the barriers against immigration have risen and why, in order to evade them, potential migrants have sought refugee status. And as the west tightens up on the definition of refugees, so the migrants resort to ruses such as forged passports. The hijacking of aircraft is simply the latest development in this battle of wits, because countries like Britain have now made transport operators liable to penalties if they carry illegal immigrants, even unwittingly. Thus, when Mr Straw insists that a high proportion of asylum-seekers are bogus and that many are mixed up with criminality, he is right. But that is largely of western governments' own making.

The problem won't go away: if we indeed live in a single world economy, yet with monstrous gaps between rich and poor, the aspiration to move between countries will grow as surely as the aspiration to move within them. In the end, the rich countries have to agree on how they will control (or not control) people and match that to their controls (at present non-existent) on capital. But that is not a matter for Mr Straw who, on this extraordinarily complex subject, deserves better than routine abuse.

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Just wait for the gold rush to end